Game of Thrones: The Game pt. 1 – Constraints and Contradictions

GoT SplashGame of Thrones: The Game (I don’t know why the “A” was dropped from the title when the series became a multi-media franchise, but I will suffer the awkward phrasing silently) is a roleplaying game released for PC, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3 in May of 2012 by Cyanide Studios. Despite the popularity of its much more famous cousins in the stacked paper and talky-pictures media, if you’ve never heard of this game, you’re probably not alone. It was released to generally negative feedback (a 58 on Metacritic, which is about as low as scores get in Video Game Reviewer Land) and was quickly forgotten. Being a fan of roleplaying games, video games, and (A) Game of Thrones, I have taken it upon myself to play this game and let all of you (my adoring readers) know how excellent this game is!

… Which is to say, not very excellent. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It turns out I have a lot to say about this not-very-good-game, so we’re going to start at the beginning and go from there. I’ll be splitting this up into parts because no one wants to read that many words at one time, and I don’t want to write it! I would also like to say that this is not meant to be taken as a review. I am not going to end this by giving you an arbitrary score or telling you whether you should buy/play this game or not. (You probably shouldn’t.) (Oops.)  Everything written on this blog is entirely subjective, and you are free to disagree with me, though I’ll be happier if you do it politely.

Additionally, these posts will discuss not only this game, but also the series it is based on, A Song of Ice and Fire. As such, it will be unapologetically filled with spoilers (though this post specifically is pretty mild as far as spoilers go) and details that you probably won’t understand if you’re unfamiliar with the setting. If you haven’t read the first book or watched the first season, you probably shouldn’t continue. With that out of the way, let’s begin:

Game of Thrones feels like a game that wants to be bigger than it was allowed to be. It was developed by a smaller studio that didn’t have the funds of, say, Bioware, to make a big, sprawling, 3D action RPG of the likes of Dragon Age. Big RPGs today are expensive because creating a variety of large 3D environments and having fully voiced, animated dialogue/cutscenes is difficult and time consuming. In the context of production, every option you give the player in a conversation becomes a new animation to create and a new line you have to hire someone to say. If you give the player power over the future of the plot, suddenly, not only do you need a new animation, but you’ll need entirely new dialogues (with new choices of their own).

The choices!
The choices!

My understanding is that Game of Thrones had a relatively tiny budget, but it doesn’t find a way to satisfyingly solve any of these problems. All the lines are fully voiced, and you often have at least two options of how you want your character to respond to something, but decisions rarely feel meaningful. You might get to piss someone off or choose to be friendly with them, but the game quickly brings you back to the same point.

However, the real problem is that the Game of Thrones’ setting works best when it’s a maelstrom of politicking and intrigue. Characters are written big and vibrant so their personalities can feed off of each other and create interesting scenarios. In the book, we are given Ned Stark’s reserved and rational demeanor to contrast against the loud, boisterous, drunk King Robert. The game, on the other hand, is a very personal tale for both the main characters, which makes the plot feel very confined.

I can think of several reasons why the game may have ended up this way (though this is purely speculation). I suspect that the writers wanted an entirely new story so 1) the player wouldn’t feel like they were constantly tagging along with Ned Stark and watching him do awesome stuff, 2) they wouldn’t have to design (or voice act and animate, etc.) the huge number of characters from the book, and 3) they could tell their own story. Unfortunately, the personal journeys of the main characters, while not thematically inappropriate, put the game’s story at odds with what Game of Thrones does best: Big Drama.

Pictured here: Mors, Whosthat, Whatshisface, and SoandSo.
Pictured here: Mors, Whosthat, Whatshisface, and SoandSo.

From the very beginning, the game establishes this contrast between the constraints of its personal story and the book’s larger personalities and sweeping tale. The game starts with Mors Westford, one of the two key protagonists, chasing down an old friend for deserting the Night’s Watch. Mors catches him, hauls him back to Castle Black and chops his head off. Despite the two men’s personal connection the whole event seems rather perfunctory. The game has now established that Mors is a gruff and honorable man, so they choose to contrast his character with… well, no one. There is no King Robert foil, because none of the characters Mors travels with for most of the game have nearly as much personality as he does. For a brief period, Mors is given some new recruits, and the game almost looks as if it’s going to let you mold their personalities over the course of the game by approving of or rebuffing their different character traits, buuut they’re quickly killed off. The companions that follow are generally of the, “Let’s do whatever you want to do, Player Character” variety.

The other key protagonist, Alester Sarwyck (because there aren’t enough fantasy characters with that name), is a priest of R’hllor (I spelled that right without having to look it up, oh god) and the son of the Lord of Riverspring. His chapters are both more interesting and more bland than Mors’. While playing Mors’, you aren’t frequently given many interesting choices or agency over the story (from what I recall, when you are given a choice it’s usually on the level of: “Do you want to kill this person or not?”), but while playing Alester you are given much more freedom to choose how you act. While Alester’s choices never have a significant impact on how the story plays out, I generally enjoyed his chapters more, because the illusion of choice is more appealing to me than no choice at all.

The agency you’re given while playing Alester, however, has the unintended side effect of watering down who he is as a character. Game of Thrones is about BIG PERSONALITIES, but Alester is… I don’t know who Alester really is. I personally played him as someone calmer and more practical than the gruff, violent Mors, and therein lies the root of the problem. In order to give him more choices, they made his core personality shallower. Alester can be practical, verging on heartless, in the pursuit of his goals, or he can be kinder and more empathetic, but I couldn’t tell you what his primary character traits were. Mors, with his grumbling and growling no matter how you play him, makes a more engaging character to experience.

Alester: Tourist
Alester: Tourist

That being said, the choices you are given in Alester’s chapters embellish intrigue and motivations for that character, whereas Mors’ chapters have a tendency prematurely cut off interesting plotlines and lead to dead ends (at least in the earlier parts of the game). I enjoyed Mors’ chapters for his character, but I played Alester’s chapters for the plot that surrounded him. Whose chapters are better? While playing the game I would have said Alester’s, but in hindsight they both end up frustrating and nonsensical (even more so as their plots converge), so we’ll call it a wash.

That’s about it for today’s post. Next week* I’ll be writing about how Game of Thrones’ graphics are very good at creating believable environments, while also being pretty terrible. I might also get into how combat is tedious and annoying. Who knows!

*I’m lazy. No promises.

Rawr.Indeed.

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